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Virgil Thomson and Company


Not Virgil Thomson
Not Virgil Thomson

Wistaria Chamber Music Society is celebrating the 25th-anniversary of the death of the American composer, critic, and wit Virgil Thomson with a tour of playful, experimental, and meditative chamber works by Thomson and three of his friends and students. The program will be given on SaturdayOct. 11, 2014, at the Unitarian Society in Northampton, MA, at 4 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, at 4 p.m., at the Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon Street, Boston, and will feature Randall Hodgkinson, pianist, and Astrid Schween, cellist and long-time Wistaria member. They join pianists Monica Jakuc Leverett and Edward Rosser, soprano Junko Watanabe, tenor Peter W. Shea, the four-hand piano duo Gary Steigerwalt and Dana Muller, pianist Edward Rosser, and harpist Franziska Huhn.

The eclectic, searching program affords an unusual look at Virgil Thomson and his influence on friends and followers Lou Harrison, John Cage, and the well-known and busy Boston composer Scott Wheeler. More details on the event follow after an interesting interview with Wheeler.

How much do composers and audiences think of Virgil Thomson these days?

How much composers think about other composers typically depends on a combination of what the composer is working on and what the compositional fashions are. Thomson has always attracted a few composers, typically rather literate ones, who want to explore beyond the best known American music of that period. Composers and listeners who explore a bit more deeply generally find some real gems in Thomson.

Audiences? Well, they mostly get the repertoire choices of the big concert presenters, who play it safe by giving everyone what they already know they like. To hear other composers from any period, and almost any of the modern ones, takes a bit of searching out. Any time I’ve performed Thomson or heard a committed performance of his music, audiences love it. The Manhattan School Mother of Us All last season got wonderful response.

He was a critic, a composer of abstract music, nonsense music and useful music. How do his accessible compositions like The Plow That Broke the Plain fit into his overall oeuvre?

The Plow isn’t just “accessible” music, it’s film music, explicitly based on folk melodies; Thomson’s work for film combines his plainspoken vein, a combination of Kansas City and Satie, and his interest in theatrical work. I appreciate the professionalism of this side of Thomson, and consider myself a follower of his “objective” approach to this sort of work, but I am much more interested in other aspects of his composition. The early Stein settings such as Capital Capitals, and several other of his early works are continually fresh, even bracingly radical to hear even now—this aspect of Thomson I especially cherish. I also love the richer, more neo-romantic works such as the cello concerto, the Mother of Us All and the Kenneth Koch songs Mostly About Love.

As far as “useful” music, Thomson liked very much to think that his music was useful, but that term was associated with Hindemith, whose aesthetic wasn’t his favorite. But in some ways these composers weren’t all that different. Certainly both were proud to be able to create music for whatever occasion required it, and both disdained the idea that one needed to be romantically inspired in order to compose.

I’m not sure what you mean by “nonsense music.” I have conducted a delightful Thomson choral cantata on Edward Lear, whose texts are classics of nonsense, but perhaps you mean the well-known Thomson settings of Gertrude Stein. Neither Stein nor Thomson regarded their collaborations as nonsense; no doubt they considered the term a way of domesticating or minimizing their truly radical work, which was in no way cute or folksy. (There were those who tried to understand Stein in terms of, say, Ogden Nash, to which she quite properly objected.) If you are perhaps thinking of radically conceived music as nonsense, that’s almost never true, is it? Almost all truly original music has struck a few listeners as nonsensical, but that impression doesn’t last long with Stravinsky, Varese, Babbitt, even Boulez. Certainly not with Thomson, in any of his various expressive modes.

As a critic was he generous to his colleague and does he have a good record of being right in his judgments?

Thomson’s criticism is being reissued in two Library of America volumes, the first of which is now available, so it’s a good moment to reconsider this important aspect of his work. Was he “generous” as a critic? Did someone tell you otherwise? Is this even a critic’s responsibility? Not to me or to Thomson. He certainly developed enemies, which is easily understood from his approach to criticism, which he describes in his autobiography: “These principles, as I understood them, were to expose the philanthropic persons in control of our musical institutions for the amateurs they are, to reveal the manipulators of our musical distribution for the culturally retarded profit makers that indeed they are, and to support with all the power of my praise every artist, composer, group, or impresario whose relation to music was straightforward, by which I mean based on music and the sound it makes.” Anything that struck him as salesmanship or what we would nowadays call hype he attacked, often through ridicule, so many powerful people in music didn’t find him very “generous,” but he was widely supported in the musical community and he was widely read. His first Herald Tribune review of the New York Philharmonic ended with a famous line that “I understand now why the Philharmonic is not a part of New York’s intellectual life.” The Philharmonic program he heard (mostly Sibelius and Beethoven) closely resembles the programs we still hear from our major orchestras. Thomson’s complaint that this programming is stale is at least as true today, so in that sense Thomson had a better “record of being right” than the more stolid and less interesting critics. I agree with critic Tim Page, who has edited the new Thomson volume, that there was some wonderful music that Virgil didn’t much like, including Sibelius, but I also agree with Tim that Virgil’s reasons for disliking it are always interesting, both as musical observation and as smart, readable journalism.

What were his influences on you both social and musical?

Virgil’s social influences on me were on a few levels, mostly involving good food and wine. He had fascinating and famous friends from the arts, and close friends beyond the arts in fields such as banking and law. He liked to hang out with pop composers like Lieber and Stoller. His friends Comden and Green always showed up to hear his music. He also had some sketchy friends – I remember a dinner at our Somerville apartment when Virgil brought some fellow who got abusively drunk and was encouraged to leave the party early. At least one close composer friend had a serious drug problem. Virgil lived in the Chelsea Hotel and seemed comfortable with the unconventional lives there. I had spent most of my time in academic settings, so I had wide eyes about much of this scene; I’m pretty sure there was more going on that I didn’t even know. It certainly seemed a more interesting way to be a composer than to hope for tenure at some nice college. So socially he was a pretty important influence on me – though I’ve taught musical theatre for years at Emerson, I was never much tempted by the more academic sorts of institutions.

Virgil’s musical influence came in a very direct way: when I brought him my vocal music he corrected it, erasing and rewriting the notes with little explanation. I’m pretty sure he did the same for Rodney Lister, who was also part of our lessons, or most of them. Virgil then hired both me and Rodney to do some portrait orchestrations, and again he gave us quite specific directions, as a master painter might do with studio assistants. He then made sure we were flown out to Wisconsin for the premiere, which became another occasion for gossipy eating and drinking.

I also picked up Virgil’s procedure for writing musical portraits from life. My introduction to his method was when he wrote one of me. By now I’ve written a handful of them, which sometimes turn up on programs with Thomson portraits. That will be the case on the Wistaria program.

Can you give us some short notes on the program Wistaria Chamber Music Society including a précis of the talk you will give there?

The concert includes a nice selection of Thomson, and some work by John Cage and Lou Harrison, both of whom were close to Virgil, and whose works will complement both Virgil’s and mine. I’m particularly eager to hear some of Harrison’s Suite for Cello and Harp, which is a special piece from this strange and special composer. I’ll talk with Wistaria’s director David Perkins at the concert, but I can’t give a précis because it isn’t a lecture. I’m hoping there might be some food and wine.

*  *  *

Scott Wheeler
Scott Wheeler

For almost 60 years, Thomson was a creative and provocative force in American music. Younger composers including John Cage and Lou Harrison, and (a generation later) Scott Wheeler visited the older composer regularly in his apartment in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, where Thomson lived from the 1930s until his death in 1989. There, he doled out advice and encouragement, shared connections, helped arrange grants and contracts.

In Wistaria’s program, Mr. Hodgkinson and Ms. Schween perform a set of Thomson’s Portraits arranged for cello and piano, and Scott Wheeler’s 2010 masterpiece, “Spirit Geometry.” Ms. Jakuc Leverett plays short pieces by Wheeler that follow the format of Thomson’s own “portraits”–quickly composed pieces inspired by and dedicated to friends. The program includes Lou Harrison’s haunting Suite for Harp and Cello, Thomson’s drunken “Synthetic Waltzes,” and vocal and piano works by Cage and Thomson.

David Perkins, artistic director of Wistaria, said, “We are delighted to explore this special lineage in American music, a lineage that isn’t over yet. All of these composers have a playfulness, influenced by Thomson who spent years in the Paris of Satie and ‘Les Six’ after World War I. At the same time, they all (often) arrive at an atmosphere that is simple, spare, meditative, and somehow very American.”

Wheeler, a professor of performing arts at Emerson University, studied with Thomson in the early 1980s, when he was a student at Amherst College and then a graduate student at Brandeis University. “My studies with Virgil focused on text setting – how to bring together music and language. I’ve spent the rest of my life exploring those ideas. Even more important were the lessons he taught by example – how one might make a life as a professional composer and a working member of the larger artistic and intellectual community. Those larger lessons involved a lot of good food and wine.”

Virgil Thomson (file photo)
Virgil Thomson (file photo)

Wistaria was formed in 2005 and is devoted to performing the great chamber music of the 19th and 20th centuries in unusual combinations and arresting formats. Since its founding in 2005, the society has given 65 performances of 48 programs in Holyoke, Northampton, Amherst, Plainfield, MA, Brattleboro, VT, and Boston, MA.

The Oct. 12 concert at the Goethe Institute will be Wistaria’s second visit to the Boston area.  In March 2013, Wistaria performed “Café Buenos Aires,” a program of Latin American music, at the Longy School of Music.

The “Company of Virgil” concerts are being supported in part by a grant from the Virgil Thomson Foundation.

The Thomson anniversary year has been marked by numerous concerts of his music, and the release of a 1,200 page volume of Thomson’s criticism in the Library of America, edited by Tim Page. For other Thomson events, check here. The complete program is here.

See related review here.

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